Splitniks in Ulcerville : BOOKS : AMERICA

AS SEEN ON TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 50s by Karal Ann Marling, Harvard University Press £19.95
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The Independent Culture
THIS semi-surreal history of 1950s America concludes with the historic "kitchen debate" between Nixon and Krushchev in Moscow in 1959. At the height of the Cold War, and in the paranoid atmosphere engendered by what candidate John Kennedy would ca ll the"missile gap", the American vice-president locked horns with the Soviet premier in a $250,000 RCA Whirlpool miracle kitchen.

The Soviets had Sputnik, but the Americans had their open-plan kit-chen, the "splitnik". No contest. For sure, using atomic power, the Soviets could launch space missiles. But where except the USA, Marling argues, could the "mysteries of atomic energy beunlocked in the average suburban kit-chen, so that busy cooks could serve up three year old gamma-radiated chicken dishes in less than four minutes, straight from a new microwave oven?"

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Cold War was won in suburban America, sitting in an open- plan kitchen with a TV dinner while watching Davy Crockett. Marling's thesis is that the dominant pathology of everyday life in '50s America was voyeurism. The dialectical contradiction of "I like Ike" and "I like to watch" was weirdly resolved in I Love Lucy. While Desi and Lucy are hamming domesticity and homemaking, the real action, according to Marling, is elsewhere: "the effect is a visual, visceral dazzle, an absorbing sense of pleasure in the act of perusal. Costumes. Things. Things to look at. New Things. The latest things... the glass door lets Lucy peep into her oven: she loves it because it lets her see inside."

Flush with post-war cash, America witnessed the production of the useless, under the guise of the utilitarian, on a barely conceivable scale. In the '50s, the US consumed three quarters of all appliances produced in the world. The mid-range American car carried 44lbs of chrome. The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado had, among its extras, a mink-covered bottle opener and a radar-guided fishing rod. In a taste culture that has been heavily exploited by the artist Jeff Koons, products offered a kind of baroque-u-likeluxury.

In pursuit of the consumer, Madison Avenue hired experts in the new techniques of motivational research. One such was Dr Ernest Dichter, called in by the General Mills food company, creators of the publishing phenomenon Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book.This renowned psychologist (famous for taking dehydrated eggs out of the cake mix) was able to see in the banal rituals of domestic life presentiments of grand passions. "To present one's husband with a home-made cake was an `act of love', he rhapsodised. It was a gift of self, a talisman of fecundity."

In a buyer's market, packaging and advertising often displayed a flighty surrealism. The Maidenform bra company produced a dream series of theatre-of-the-absurd lingerie ads where a slightly euphoric, shirtless woman dances, handbag in hand, over the slogan "I dreamed I went shopping in my Maiden-form bra".

On TV, Elvis competed with quiz- show star Charles Van Doren. The "sexhibitionist", according to Time, versus the tweedy, clean-cut all- American boy. Ironically, the corrupter and scandaliser turned out to be Van Doren. This Columbia University lecturer(a rare high-profile egghead in the anti-intellectual Eisenhower years) won more than $129,000 but turned out to be a fraud, coached in his answers. It was as if Terry Eagleton was caught cheating at Fifteen-to-One.

Increased leisure time and labour- saving devices produced a hyphenated culture - hi-fi, do-it-yourself, painting-by-numbers. Perhaps the most extra-ordinary feature of the period was the almost universal interest in amateur art. Eisenhower painted, and Winston Churchill's aesthetic that painting should be a therapeutic splash and wallop was uncannily akin to the brash machismo of Abstract Expressionism. Amateur art was an antidote to "Ulcerville", as the new suburbia was known. You could buy self-service art in supermarkets, and purchase Pantographs enabling you to reproduce old masters in the comfort of your own home.

The patron saint of amateur art was the remarkable Grandma Moses. Having taken up painting aged 78, she depicted the fields, farms and valleys of mid-west America. Abstraction, said Eisenhower's favourite artist, was only "good for a rug or piece of linoleum". The appreciation of her work on a European tour was a shock and insult to contemporary American artists, especially as the Abstract Expressionists sought to place their work in the grand tradition of European art. "She was 100 per cent American; their heritage was European modernism. Theirs was a tough, males-only fraternity. She was old and happy; they were young and miserable, and highly critical of a soc-iety she patently enjoyed."

If Marling's extraordinary history is to be believed, the age of American decadence is not to be found in the baby-boomer's '60s but in the hi-tech rococo of '50s suburban America.